Niña's Curious World through Soon's eyes
I’m sitting in the waiting room of a zoom meeting, coffee in hand, and I’ve got the two tiny humans of my home satiated with frozen waffles. We’ll see how long they last! On the other end of the call, Soon is just making her way in after closing up a full day. While it’s only 9AM here in Connecticut, it’s 8PM on Soon’s side of the world.
While you may know her as Canada-based, Soon has actually spent the last several months traveling the world. After what has now become that classic tale of spending two years in isolation (in Soon’s case, with her parents in Niagara Falls), she found that it was time for a change of scenery. Soon has been operating her business while country-hopping and is currently situated in Thailand.
“I’m a curious person and I just want to explore”.
Soon isn’t a stranger to scenery change – while born in South Korea, she moved to the United States when she was 13-years-old. She described herself as “the quiet child drawing in a corner” which is what led to her love of art and ultimately working in the space as an adult. Making friends as the new kid not just to the school, but to the entire country was hard. As a naturally shy child who came into the country without speaking English, creating art actually helped her make friends and ultimately led to learning the language. Her passion for art only grew, and stayed with her into adulthood.
In 2008, Soon graduated art school in the midst of the biggest financial crisis in decades. As a self-described “naïve young woman”, she bounced from job to job working in corporate environments, at cafes and restaurants, and whatever else she could find. Within all of this though, her heart was still called by her art. She took gigs as an art teacher and in graphic design, while spending her time outside of work creating pieces to exhibit at various events with the ultimate goal of turning her passion into her career.
That being said - being a visual artist does not exactly equate to making an easy living – the path to financial stability is not easy, nor predictable. The vast majority of artists have multiple small streams of income from a variety of places they may share their art, while also keeping a day job to pay the bills. In fact, in an independent survey done by The Creative Independent of over 1000 visual artists, only 9% of respondents said that they felt they were financially stable to the point of not having to worry about paying their expenses.
Succumbing to this, Soon decided to study business at a college in Spain thinking that she would need to use that education as her means to pay the bills. Meanwhile, her daydreams still left her constantly doodling – often drawing flowers around her notes, finding it to be a sort of therapy within the life of someone pursuing a degree in something they aren’t passionate about. After a while, she thought it might be nice to actually live among her flowers and thus, a little girl "Niña" character was born.
At first, she was just a small figure that lived among the flowers but after a while, Soon’s friends started calling her “Niña” (Spanish for “little girl”). It wasn’t long before Soon and Niña became one in the same, and you could see little Niña exploring all sorts of dreamy scenes within Soon’s art much like Soon is now.
“It was not intentional, but she is me! We are exploring the forest, marine life, the arctic, now the kitchen…”
Believe it or not, Soon actually wasn’t a puzzler before starting her puzzle business. In our chat, I shared with Soon that we actually have her self-published book, Finding Niña: Niña's Desk, a look-and-find style book featuring illustrations of that little character we all know and love so much. My 5-year-old and I like to point out the Niña’s as a before-bed activity.
“Funny story, that’s exactly how I got into puzzles!”
Soon shared with me that she had a friend with a young daughter who loved the book in the same way I do with mine. That friend shared the idea of putting Nina into a puzzle as another way for people to find her and thus, an idea was born. Creating a puzzle business first started out as an idea to diversify the way that Soon was sharing her art (and thus making a living) but quickly became so much more. Spoiler alert - you can now find Niña in three (soon to be four) puzzles across the Soonness catalog.
“I learned a lot about puzzling, the whole community, and how much more there was to the puzzle world than I ever would previously have guessed”.
Soon spent the two years isolated at home with her parents researching what made a good puzzle, talking to the community, and creating art to launch the idea. She wanted to create the absolute best product possible, available to anyone in the world, using her life’s work. She also has a passion for creating a sustainable product that is as carbon-neutral as possible. As of 2022, Soon’s puzzles are completely plastic-free from the puzzle itself, to the packaging both inside and outside of the box.
While Soonness was launched with Soon’s own art (Forest Life launched in 2021), it wasn’t long before she saw the opportunity to open her brand to include submissions from other artists. While Soon is a one-woman-show when it comes to the curation, production management, website master, and customer service – she now has a collective of artists from all over the world spanning across her catalog. Her exclusive runs of “Pick and Preorder” (PNP) puzzles have become a very popular week-long event where puzzlers can essentially vote with their money by preordering puzzle design concepts. If enough orders are submitted during the timeframe, the puzzle goes into production. This creates a very limited edition, one-time chance to get the puzzle!
“I want to serve the artist community and the puzzle community in one go – we try to curate pieces in a variety of styles and mediums puzzlers may not otherwise see. We’re giving exposure to artists with a wide range of experience from brand new first-timers, to old favorites. Puzzlers get new art, and artists get to directly profit doing what they love”.
Soon’s idea for the PNP involves real collaboration from beginning to end. She looks for artists who are actively creating art and working to make this their full-time job and curates pieces from artists who believe in the process of working with her on the puzzle from beginning to end. They are involved in everything from the actual manufacturing of the puzzle, to the promotion of the art itself.
PNP events are currently held three times a year (January, May, and September) with three pieces to select from in each event. Soon created a platform on the Soonness website where independent artists can sign up and submit their art with a description for a potential collaboration.
What’s next for Soon? She is keeping busy with the Soonness brand! Soon recently completed the May PNP, featuring a brand new hand-drawn die-cut by Soon herself, responding to the request from puzzlers for more random cuts. All three featured pieces were successfully backed, including one of her own. “Kitchen Life” is Soon’s 4th installment of the Life series and features little Nina among lots of whimsical little food characters in the kitchen. The Summer 2023 event also included two new puzzle designs from two artists previously seen in the Soonness lineup – Kathy Ager and Helen Dardik. These puzzles are currently in production and due to be shipped in late July with the next PNP event to be held in September.
She also has a goal of creating an event that revolves around the art in puzzles. She dreams of a space where puzzlers and artists could meet in a way that takes the interactive part of puzzling an art piece even further. Her experience in crafting events has turned into a dream of completely transforming a space into an art experience that envelopes the attendees while also allowing them to connect and interact in a way that artists and puzzlers typically do not have the opportunity to do. While Soon shared even more of her ideas with me, I’m going to go ahead and stop it here so as to not give too much away but let me tell you – if and when this idea ever becomes a reality, I will be the first one buying a ticket.
“Artists make the world more enjoyable and fun. They make the world more beautiful and all I want is to see that continue”.
Get to know the Author: Jessica Komarow
Jessica is a puzzle Instagrammer and blogger and a member of the Puzzle Parley Steering Committee. She is a millennial mom of two little girls by day, and loves to sit down with a puzzle and an audiobook at night. You can find her at @PiecefulPuzzling on Instagram.